It’s funny sometimes the research trails and rabbit holes we find ourselves on when an unexpected artifact or photograph is brought into the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum (MCLHR). Most are very straightforward. Others leave us scratching our head a bit until we dive into our newspaper, record, photograph, and other collections at the History Room to try to uncover the historical context and story behind a particular item. 

Two stereograph photos donated to MCLHR of a large railroad trestle “in the Sparta vicinity,” taken about 1883.

One such head-scratcher was the two photographs above that were donated to the History Room back in 2017 showing a massive railroad trestle located somewhere in “the Sparta vicinity.” The photographs actually were from two stereograph cards, which was a popular form of 3-D visual entertainment from the 1850s to the early 1900s.

While the giant railroad trestle looks like something you’d find out west in the late 1800s, the printed markings on the stereographs clearly indicate the photos were taken and printed in the Sparta area by photographers A. R. Cottrell and Frank Richardson. These men were in business together in Sparta from 1880–1882. Could this enormous-looking railroad bridge really have been located in Monroe County, Wis.? If so, why didn’t we have any overt information on it in our archives? Surely such an architectural feature would have been well documented and talked about. These were just some of the questions History Room Director Jarrod Roll and I were asking ourselves about these unique images.

Consequently, we went digging trying to figure out where this railroad bridge may have been located since it clearly isn’t visible today. Thanks in part to the assistance of the History Room volunteer team, the Monroe County Register of Deeds Office, and some informed locals, we’ve not only been able to determine where this trestle was located, but also conclude that it is in fact still there. It’s just been buried since the early 1900s.

The Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail is undoubtedly known for its three railroad tunnels — the longest of which is three-quarters of a mile in length — and the quarter-mile-long stone flume at Summit, built to redirect rainwater off the top of the ridge away from the railroad tracks. However, the construction and subsequent burying of this massive railroad trestle — actually the largest of several trestles — is another unique (and little-known) aspect of this stretch of the former Chicago & North Western (C&NW) Rail Line and an engineering feat in its own right. 

Construction of the C&NW Elroy-Sparta line occurred throughout 1872 and 1873. The route officially opened in September 1873. Besides the three tunnels that had to be dug through the hills on the line, ridges were lowered and bridges were constructed across low-lying areas to create an appropriate grade for the railroad to effectively run on. The highest point on the line was at Summit just east of Tunnel No. 3 between Norwalk and Sparta. Two miles west of Tunnel No. 3, the line passes through Farmers Valley, running between ridgetops.

It’s in this area of Farmers Valley near Chimney Rock that a series of five iron girder trestles with stone abutments were ultimately constructed beginning in 1882. The bridges connected the high points of the valley and replaced earlier versions that the C&NW ran on for its first 10 years of operation. Other iron trestles were constructed along the Elroy-Sparta route, but Farmers Valley had the longest and the tallest. Several of the Farmers Valley railroad bridges ranged in length from 115 to 140 feet long. The longest, Bridge No. 575, was located on land purchased adjacent to the north part of Julius C. Swartzlow’s farm in Wells Township. It was 191.5 feet long and approximately 65 feet high! This is most likely the trestle that appears in the stereographs.

With these large-scale bridges being built in the county, it was surprising that there wasn’t much coverage of their construction in the local newspapers. There were only brief mentions of masons, stonecutters, and an “iron bridge gang” working near Summit and Norwalk throughout 1882. If not for these donated stereographs, we may never have known that these large trestles existed, let alone what ultimately happened to them.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, heavy train traffic caused increasing concern that the iron trestles in Farmers Valley would collapse. Swartzlow eventually agreed to allow the C&NW to fill in around Bridge No. 575 if they purchased his entire 320-acre farm. According to an article that appeared in the June 11, 1901, Sparta Herald newspaper, “An important change of farm property in the Town of Lafayette took place last week, in the sale by Aug. W. Smith of his farm of 320 acres to Julius Schwartzlow for $10,500 … Mr. Schwartzlow, the new purchaser, has recently sold his valuable farm to the C. & N. W. railway company, whose line runs through it west of No. 3 tunnel, and the company wishing to fill up a deep gorge there which is now crossed by a steel viaduct. The company paid Mr. Schwartzlow $13,000 for his entire farm, which is one of the best in the county.” The C&NW later resold the farm on land contract to Antonio Christiano.

Between 1902 and 1907, fill primarily made of dirt, rocks, and cinders was dropped from railroad dump cars along the trestles and tamped and graded down until only the railroad bed was left exposed. While this stabilized the bridges, it also hid them from view. One of the only visible sections of the original iron trestle left today can be seen when crossing underneath the bike trail on Kapok Road.

Today, Bridge No. 575 and its neighboring trestles are just unassuming spans on the Elroy-Sparta Bike Trail. You’d never know what was underneath. If not for two stereographs brought into the History Room and some good sleuthing, we wouldn’t know either.

Are you interested in researching a local history topic? The Monroe County Local History Room & Museum is open for research Tuesday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is located at 200 W. Main St., Sparta. Admission is free.